The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman cover

You’ve likely already heard of Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, since there was an impressive profile last month at The New Yorker that summarizes many of the key points. This book, though, goes into great depth with new discoveries about the life of William Moulton Marston, her creator.

Early on, Lepore lays out her premise clearly. She traces Superman’s roots to science fiction, Batman to the hard-boiled detective, and Wonder Woman to “the feminist utopia and to the struggle for women’s rights.” But this book isn’t about the superhero (although I learned bits about her I didn’t know, including the significance of the chain imagery, reflecting real-life suffragette demonstrations) as much as it is about the odd man who dreamed her up.

In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore has written a very readable exploration of the life of Marston. She focuses on the feminist influences, from his equally well-educated wife (who may have done some of the work credited to him and kept money coming into the family) to the third party in their multi-person relationship, Olive Byrne. Olive was the daughter of a sister of Margaret Sanger. Olive’s mother nearly died after a hunger strike during her imprisonment for violating the law against telling people about methods of birth control. (A law that strikes the modern reader as particularly stupid.)

The Secret History of Wonder Woman cover

Now, I knew some of the “shocking” items being used to promote this book, such as Marston’s unique family setup and his invention of the lie detector, but even the elements I was familiar with, I learned a lot more details about. (Like Marston’s immense reported success rate with his early detector trials, until it failed miserably.) I had never thought about what it would have been like to have been one of the women in his life, and I’m embarrassed that that never occurred to me before. Understanding more about the women who inspired him makes Wonder Woman — and the many similarities — more interesting.

Marston’s own career was notably checkered, with one interesting chapter going into the legal cases that led to the lie detector being ruled inadmissible as evidence and the charges of fraud against Marston at the time, a situation that didn’t help his reputation. I hadn’t realized how badly his career went, or the variety of rumors that swirled around him, due in part to his theories about domination and submission. I didn’t know he made a stab at working in Hollywood, writing for the movies, or how much of a self-promoter he became when someone else patented a polygraph machine.

I’m also glad to see many photos of these people included. Too many books of this nature focus on text, but the images remind the reader of how long ago some of this took place (with Wonder Woman debuting in 1941). Lepore has apparently done a huge amount of research through Marston’s private papers. And she’s kept it all very entertaining. Although clocking in at over 400 pages, I dove into the book gladly and kept wanting more.

The third section of the book (after one on Marston’s early life and one on his family) comes to Wonder Woman, how she was created and how successful she became. The bits people have sniggered about for years — the skimpy outfit, the frequent bondage — are clearly addressed, with details that will inform even the most knowledgeable fan or historian. There’s a bit of information on artist Harry G. Peter as well as Joye E. Hummel, an early ghostwriter on the character.

After Marston’s death, the character and the industry decline, particularly in the face of attacks by Dr. Wertham, who “found the feminism in Wonder Woman repulsive”. Lepore points out that he also had a professional rivalry with Dr. Lauretta Bender, a child psychiatrist who was one of the advisors on Wonder Woman and a supporter of comic books as good coping methods for children. An epilogue to the book covers the use of Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine and gives a brief overview of what happened to both the character and feminism in the 1970s.

The book ends with an index of the comics that Wonder Woman appeared in while still under the control of her creator and some information on how to read them. I’ll definitely be diving into those shortly, with new insight into the best-known superhero woman. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)


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